Columbia was in the midst of a tumultuous year when Suzanne Goldberg first rose to the rank of Executive Vice President for University Life in January 2015.
National attention was drawn to the University by a full semester of “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” the art project by Emma Sulkowicz, CC ’15, that criticized the University’s treatment of sexual assault survivors. And following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in summer 2014, students of color at Columbia joined those nationwide to demand more comprehensive support from the University.
These concerns would ultimately shape the office, then called the Office of Student Affairs, whose creation was first announced by University President Lee Bollinger. After Bollinger appointed Goldberg, his former special advisor on sexual assault, to head the office—which was quickly renamed as the Office of University Life—he charged her broadly with addressing these student-facing issues and liaising between his office and all students.
“Before we created this office, there was nobody in central administration who had primary responsibility for engaging with students. And I felt over the years that that was a big lack and many, many other universities have this kind of position,” Bollinger said in an interview last month.
Two years later, Goldberg’s office has made some progress on its mandate, most notably in its first major act: overseeing the sweeping rollout of a required sexual respect initiative for all students. But since then, the office has driven fewer policy changes and focused more on holding events and connecting students to existing resources.
Cheryl Wang/Staff Designer
Additionally, University Life has developed tense and at times even adversarial relationships with both students and other administrators. In conversations with Spectator, more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate student leaders, faculty members, and administrators from various schools who have interacted with the office acknowledged the inherent difficulty of Goldberg’s position and cited some signs of success. But they all listed similar frustrations and concerns with the office, describing it as unreceptive to external input, difficult to work with, and slow to effect meaningful change.
From the start, University Life has faced an unprecedented, difficult mandate. Columbia looks to the office to tackle the most complex and weighty problems students at the University face, but University Life was not given an explicit mission or boundaries for how to interact with other offices. In an interview with Goldberg after she was named to the position, she said that she was not entering the office with “preformed set plans,” but was rather focused on fostering community participation.
But the tense relationships between students, administrators, and the office have prevented the full extent of this collaboration.
“Students across our university have sincerely come to the table [in meetings with the Office of University Life] with a wide range of concerns to seek action to improve the quality of student life. Broadly, students have found themselves facing additional, sometimes unexplained barriers,” University Senator Sean Ryan, CC ’17, and co-chair of the Senate’s Student Affairs Committee said. “This has discouraged further student collaboration with the Office of University Life, and instead, students have sought change—and often more successfully—at the school level.”
Bollinger, by contrast, has publicly lauded the office’s work. In an interview with Spectator last month he said that he looks to Goldberg to voice student concerns in his weekly meetings with senior administrators.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of having somebody at the central administration table who is in touch with students,” Bollinger said. “Suzanne comments on what she knows about students, so a knowledge within the University administration about students is a big advance.”
Working under a broad purview
The office has had some success over the past two years. It implemented mandatory sexual respect training for all students across the University, an unusually wide-sweeping feat for a single office. Students now also must complete an online tutorial on sexual respect before they arrive on campus. It also centralized and advertized information about sexual respect policies and resources.
University Life has also recently said it will address student causes previously dealt with at the college level, including mental health, the concerns of undocumented students, student-led planning for a credit union, and the concerns of veterans. Earlier this year, the office brought the request of the Native American Council for the installment of a plaque honoring the Lenape people to the board of trustees, and it was approved.
In an interview with Spectator, Goldberg listed the redesign of the University’s sexual respect website, the NAC plaque, and the office’s work with students, faculty, and administrators among her proudest achievements.
University Life has overseen a proliferation of working groups, advisory boards, and task forces over the past two years, including a Gender-Based Misconduct Prevention Task Force that has met monthly over the past two academic years and published one report, and a Task Force on Race, Ethnicity and Inclusion that does not expect to produce a report until later this semester. University Life has also plays a guiding role in the ongoing existence of the President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Assault.
A Spectator review of task force minutes, reports, and interviews with members shows that task force activity centered largely around issues brought up by University Life itself, rather than those raised by students or faculty in the groups. A member of the GBM Prevention Task Force said that agendas for each meeting were sent to members the day before by the office, and added that input from undergraduate members was especially sparse at meetings, with only a handful in attendance every month.
Task force member also voiced concerns that the group was slow to make actual progress. Of five summary recommendations offered in the task force’s report, two—suggesting mandatory pre-arrival sexual respect training for new students and a centralized sexual respect website—were already implemented before the report was published. The other three recommendations did not suggest specific actionable items, but rather encouraged further discussion and research.
A member of the Task Force on Race, Ethnicity and Inclusion expressed similar concern that progress on several actionable items was slow, but said this task force had taken significant steps to reach more diverse groups of students.
“Could we have done more? Could it have gone faster? It’s hard to change things at a University, but it could have gone faster,” REI task force member Thomé Nicocelli, SIPA ’17, said. “One thing they’re doing well is trying to reach out to every school and involve them, and get diverse student perspectives from all colleges.”
Aside from the task force, the office’s most sustained and prominent work on issues of race is regular intellectual programming, including discussions, film screenings, and a conversation series called Awakening Our Democracy, which often explores issues of race and identity. But the office has not, for the most part, taken up perennial requests for the increase and centralization of dedicated spaces and resources for students of color.
When asked about these concerns, Goldberg said that many of those discussions should take place at the school level, and added that she believes intellectual events like Awakening Our Democracy themselves help to address the needs of students of color.
“I do think that part of creating an inclusive community is the highlighting of the issues at the university level through events,” Goldberg said. “Participatory workshop style and conversational gatherings are essential to generate a sense of belonging and highlight issues in students’ experiences.”
But students have said they would like to see more tangible action.
“I’ve been to every one of those [Awakening Our Democracy events] since I’ve been here. They’re great intellectual conversations,” Columbia Divest for Climate Justice senior organizer Sofia Petros-Gouin, CC ’19, said. “[But] having one hour during lunch every couple of weeks is not enough to fundamentally change campus culture to increase accessibility to resources. Conversation without policy changes, without structural changes, is never enough.”
Goldberg and Bollinger acknowledged frustrations surrounding the slow pace of change brought about by the office, which both administrators described as unavoidable.
“These are not quick fix questions, they are questions and challenges that require steady work. I understand the frustration,” Goldberg said. “And I think sometimes it can be hard for anyone at the University to see the big picture. Part of what we try to do is make that picture more accessible.”
Collaborations and tensions
Goldberg herself has an uneasy relationship with some of the students for which her office is meant to advocate. In addition to her role leading the Office of University Life, Goldberg was quietly appointed the University’s rules administrator, a role which involves choosing when to enact disciplinary proceedings against student protestors and presenting evidence to judicial board. Spectator first reported the appointment in October 2015.
Though administrators and University senators have continued to defend the appointment, it has led to distrust of Goldberg’s office among students.
“The person who’s supposed to be the liaison of student activists, of student needs and desires, cannot also be the same person who’s punishing students for expressing those desires,” Petros-Gouin said. “We’re in complete antagonism with them, which doesn’t make any sense.”
Tensions between University Life and student activists reached a peak last spring when CDCJ protesters occupied Low Library to urge the University to divest from fossil fuels. Goldberg urged the group to leave the building, listing suspension and expulsion as possible sanctions she would recommend for protesters.
Goldberg’s relationship with anti-sexual assault activists has also been fraught for years. When first appointed to EVP for University Life from her former post as special adviser to the president on sexual assault, activists described interactions with Goldberg as “robotic” and “adversarial.” Goldberg, also a professor of law, acknowledged her lawyerly presence in meetings.
“I will take responsibility for sometimes talking too much in meetings. It comes from a place of wanting to share information,” Goldberg said. “When I was a student I felt that I wasn’t given enough information, and I have an interest in shifting that dynamic.”
Relationships between those activists and the office have not improved in the years that followed—in December, No Red Tape projected “Suzanne Goldberg Supports Injustice” onto Low Library to protest Goldberg’s refusal to lift a ban on recording GBM proceedings, as well as her continued role as rules administrator.
When asked about the effect her position as rules administrator has had on her relationship to student groups, Goldberg said she understood the basis of student concerns but did not believe there is an inherent conflict of interest.
“Seeing this office as a disciplinary locale may seem to be in tension with all of the affirmative work that we’re doing, and that’s a fair perspective,” Goldberg said. “I think there is another perspective that thinking about university life requires thinking about how we talk with each other and how we coexist in a community at times when there are vigorous disagreements.”
University Life’s tense relationship with students is not limited solely to activists. Elected student representatives who have worked diplomatically with administrators in the past said they felt efforts to collaborate with the office were not entirely successful.
University senators interviewed by Spectator praised the office’s ability to connect students to existing resources—citing its recent work to support students affected by President Donald Trump’s executive orders related to immigration—but said bringing new suggestions or concerns to the office was less fruitful.
“When it comes to identifying existing resources on campus, the Office of University Life is the place to go,” University Senator Grace Kelley, Nursing ’17, and Student Affairs Committee co-chair, said. “However, the Office of University Life is not a place that I’ve seen accurately represent student voices through initiatives on the University level.”
Some administrators also view Goldberg’s office with trepidation, grumbling that the new office—which overlaps significantly with duties previously located within individual schools’—is inflexible and, at times, antagonistic.
Goldberg said she sees her office’s role as requiring close collaboration with the administrations of individual schools.
“This office has a different role than a student affairs office within a school. [The schools’] staff work very closely with individual students intensely over time, we work with cross-school policy issues and on larger questions of University life,” Goldberg said. “An important part of my job is to be aware of issues of concern to try to understand more about them from the perspective of a wide range of students.”
Bollinger said he is aware that there is a lack of full clarity of responsibilities between University Life and the undergraduate schools, adding that the precise duties and bounds of the office are continuing to be refined.
“This is creating a new office, there are bound to be questions of overlap or responsibilities and I wanted to give as broad a conception as possible in relation to student affairs [to University Life],” Bollinger said. “It’s still in process of being shaped and I and she and others do welcome all the efforts that [say], ‘This is what the office should be doing.’”